Command the curve of the letters
Around the words of the heart
I so long to speak but can’t
Serif, sans serif
Intellect falls on its face
Dragged along by life itself
Like it or not
This is true
Words inspire a hunger
To show more than tell
To stop talking and do
Just because I like really beautiful sensations … sample for yourself.
About a month ago, I watched a classic movie called “Bridge on the River Kwai.” This is both a review of that movie and of life as an expat. Because in reality there are so many parallels between this movie and living in a country where the society is so different, so … ad hoc.
River Kwai didn’t win seven Oscars for nothing. The slow build of the plot is dotted by scenery and acting that, for the time, was unprecedented in quality. The idea is that a group of captured British and American soldiers are held in a Japanese PoW camp in what is now Thailand. The conditions around the camp are so wild and infested that escape would surely be met by death due to impotable water and ubiquitous disease.
One American soldier named “Shears” (William Holden) escapes, however. Drama around his ordeal aside, this character seems insignificant for most of the film. Meanwhile, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) experiences a special level of detention in the camp because he won’t cooperate with the building of a bridge. For months, he’s kept in a small doghouse, locked away from sun and fed like an animal. He develops a kind of rickets and looks awful. His acting combined with makeup and setting are edgy in terms of bringing you into the feeling of what it was like. It’s important that we feel how he did, too, because we need to understand the will power driving his actions–that he would volunteer for that experience based on principle.
(BTW: The jungle sets and attention to detail in this film are breathtaking for the year it was made.)
Anyway, the Japanese code of honor eventually overcomes the situation as Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) chooses to release Nicholson over killing himself—the bridge has to be built and he can’t figure out how to do it in time. But Nicholson can.
Upon his release, Nicholson is seized by a drive to make his country proud and defy the circumstances—he’s going to build the best bridge known to man and show all the Japanese (and in his mind, the world) what British leadership and workmanship is capable of achieving.
This is where Shears comes back in. We find him recovering from a harrowing escape and near-death levels of disease in a military hospital setting along a tropical beach. He’s pulled out of a fling with a nurse to face Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) who calls his bluff about his rank and gives him an ultimatum. Either go back to the camp and help the Americans blow up the bridge or face imprisonment for lying about status.
Faced with this decision, Shears reluctantly joins Warden and a young officer (this character adds a dash of innocence and objectivity, as does the medic’s character … you just have to watch it) as they cut back through the tropics and find the bridge. This is where I have to stop the review because this is where the best part of the movie occurs. It’s kind of like an amazing song that just builds and builds and then ‘bam!’ it all comes together. The sheer choreography of the plot—the way that the characters dance their way into your interest and make you squirm in your seat, and the way they seem to stand aside to reveal the bigger idea being expressed—is worth studying if you have any interest in film.
When it’s all over, we see Nicholson, Shears and Warden in completely different lights. We don’t know what to feel at first. But eventually, we are kind of left with the concept of principle.
We realize that Nicholson’s drive based on principle is one we all seem to live by. If we look inside ourselves, we are programmed according to principles. And yet, how does that work out when you are in an environment that is, in so many ways, over your head.
Well, it’s easy, you just continue according to your program and then one day you are forced to open your eyes, wide. You see that everyone and everything around you is so much more complicated than it was when your program was developed, back in your hometown, in your school days, at your kitchen table, dorm, first office job, in your first relationships.
If you’re an expat, you’ve actually made a quantum leap. And this movie hit me so hard over the head precisely because it showed me through its artistic precision how that quantum leap renders many principles and programs obsolete. This is especially the case in Qatar, where the jungle is replaced by the unwillingness to leave a nice, comfy existence. The war backdrop and criss-crossing of cultures is replaced by a maniacal pace of human development and mass influx of people from all cultures chiming in their efforts. We are coexisting and it’s strangely similar to what this wartime film examines.
What I’m finding, after almost five years as an expat, is that I have fought this, hard. I insist on my principles and it’s killing me. However, what other principles and programs are there?
A big part of me wakes up some mornings and wants to scrap them all. But that’s not the key either. In fact it’s stupid AND impossible. It’s a very meticulous process to go through experiences with your programs in place, interact with people, discover that they don’t work, try again based on program modifications and find that they still need tweaking and on and on and on.
This is at every level of socialization and living as an expat–from conversations with a bank teller, to ordering sushi over the phone to explaining your standards to a lover and opening yourself to all of these people’s perspectives, sometimes too late, but at least in time to learn. Now, I don’t think a lot of people do this, actually. I think a lot of people go into another country and say “this is me; this place is weird; I’ll make the best of it—neither are changing.”
But I came here, I left the US, to be changed. I was tired of my insular existence. I was tired of being trapped in my original programs. So here I am–open wide. Looking at myself, tweaking, trying, growing, changing, at a pace I can’t even track, from a person I don’t think I’d recognize if I met her.
I study Nicholson because he was so attached to principle that, well, you just have to watch the movie. I don’t want to end up that way. And so every day, I have to look at the lessons and make the modifications. In some cases, as with Filipinos for instance, I have to manage every situation, yet not so much that I’m cruel or cold, which, when I’m really tired of managing every single thing all day long, is a tall order.
Still, I have to. They come from a place and a lifestyle that is laid back and not as intricate and proactive. In fact it’s downright poor there and for me to critique them is really inhumane. At the same time, I have to forgive myself because I have my programming too … thing is, only one of us is ever in a mode to change it. Me.
I come from the opposite society. It’s like a bull running through a China shop when I get into a business situation with these people. But I see now that I am the one with the understanding of the dynamic. And with that understanding comes responsibility and the opportunity to get stronger, more resilient, more in tune, more dynamic, more present, more intuitive. Just plain more. Every day, it’s another onslaught of lessons, totally improv. I pass, I fail, I ace some, I fall on my face. But I’m in it, and every single time I’m sensitive to what happened.
Principle says: “they can see what’s going on, why don’t they think about creative and proactive ways to solve the problem in front of us?!”
Reality says: “they are present, participating in a system according to rules and either too scared or too new to understand how to take the situation to another level.”
In the movie, principle said: never give in, build the bridge to the highest standards, live off pride and shove it in the face of the Japanese.
But reality said something waaaay different. If you are an expat, watch this movie. Even if you’re not, it’s good.
Dubai Eid Al-Adha 2012, a set on Flickr.
These are from last year. (Just figured out how to link flickr to wordpress.)
Hit on some solid stuff this summer and felt the need to share.
The top two selections are new music and the collections linked are 100 percent solid, IMO. Their genres push the edges of those existing. Here goes.
I stumbled on Scott Hansen’s masterwork when listening to another favorite of mine, Ulrich Schnauss … must say Hansen trumped what brought me to him. Indeed, this has colored my world. Every time I listen it drills me deeper into my feelings, so I use it carefully. I can’t say that it had me looking through a lens because this stuff pushes me deeper inside myself, to close my eyes and see beyond my wildest dreams. Sometimes I use Tycho even when it isn’t playing out loud—my mind will produce the tracks and I feel them massage my heart, connect me to a part of myself.
Hansen’s blog’s (ISO50) playlists have become a source of inspiration for me as well. I listen to them while I paint or mill around the house. He and his crew are either out on the edge or in the deepest cuts of artists like “Yes.” It’s really otherworldly. I recommend highly.
Toro y Moi—Anything in Return
I found this guy, Chaz Bundick, through the ISO50 blog, actually. He’s since medicated my summer. Bundick’s apparently the father of a new “Chill Wave” movement. I first heard the song “Say That,” off of the album “Anything in Return,” and was hooked. THEN, I watched the video—and I thought “this guy really gets it … WTF, he’s just awesome!!” Rose quartz then rung my neck and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Zero 7—Best Of (Emphasis on a couple of remixes)
Okay, this is hardly new or edgy. But something about this collection, with its experimental remixes, as a whole, rocked my socks this summer and continues to. Here are a few hints:
Finally, blast from the past …
I realize every time I listen to this collection that:
A) I don’t get sick of any of the songs because B) the message inside each song is totally evolved and the music that goes with it supports this.
This music is timeless. It’s about enjoying life, and after all the yoga and meditation I’ve done, I find that it’s actually really evolved and consistently sophisticated and positive in its message.
We all take a shit
after waking up
from a dip in the
pillow drool pool …
of hatchling dragons
Every day I get older,
hoist a cross,
of frozen time
Only a blind soul
unto their own sight,
has eyes in their heart,
sees the self completely,
and passes right through
these involuntary defenses
By Heart alone,
illusion becomes what it is
My closest companions
to which we women obsessively attend
overcome their eyeballs
see the dirt for the flower
I know that look,
return to it,
for such sweet relief
you’ve always left me
It is a year now.
Since I became so intent on the sky.
I murmured to it every day.
Explained all of my situations.
“Please sort this out,” I’d whisper.
Recently, I ran out of stories.
The word patterns.
And I realized in an instant.
It’s a waste of time to talk.
To what you are.
A sketch from a decade ago turns into a painting that longs for a better color scheme–here’s the first attempt anyway
Working with gouache is like eating with your eyes … mmmm, yummy.
NEPAL, a set on Flickr.
I will go back here again … and again.
Every once in a while, I ask myself, “what animal is most energetically aligned with my energy?” For nearly a year, it’s been the bat. Blind, cutting through silence and mystery of this latest dark patch to find nothing but more of it … I am gliding blind, yet certain of the next dawn. Friends, there is always a dawn.
Have you ever been through a dark night? If you are over 30 and haven’t been stringing along on drugs or living a fantasy life, the answer is probably yes.
My first (and most arduous) dark night was when I was about 22/23 years old. It was so incredibly paralyzing and turned my entire world on its head. I didn’t know it was coming at all as I forged headlong into a career change and moved house. Every friend, every familiarity in my life vanished in a few short months and I found myself wrapped in mystery, bicycling through snow to 6 a.m. shifts at an organic grocery store. Collecting at strangers’ houses and watching movies (or watching them smoke weed and make candles) only to feel slightly more than visible yet loved just the same by souls innocent about my past life. The only thing clear, day in day out, was the next step. I was going through radical changes but didn’t know at the time what they were. Indeed, everyone in my life at that time would say it is a miracle I have become what I am today … and it was only possible by letting go of everything.
I took a vow of silence for a month. I cut my hair really short and denied myself eye contact with men for a year. I did all kinds of radical things during this incredibly wonky time of transition. I even experimented with my thoughts. Every day, I’d come in the store and take on a different attitude and see how my day went with that attitude, with very specific lines of thought. Indeed, what a fertile time it was–everything about myself challenged.
Since then, I’ve experienced two more dark nights but that first one set me up to see them for what they are. I mean, the first one felt endless, because I honestly didn’t know what was happening and when, if ever, it would end … I played with the meantime but still, it was really tough.
My mother forbid my sister and I anti-psychotics and preached relentlessly that they would only mess us up. So I stayed completely drug-free even when, looking back, I was in quite a dangerous state of mind some days … I remember seeing the top of a church, the cross on the horizon, asking my dying Grandpa Gus to come, to help me make sense of everything. The dark nights since have plunged me just as low but somehow I knew that nothing bad would happen, that I just had to take it moment by moment. The trickiest parts of them have been, however, the lift out. That sensation that you might slip back or that it could happen again.
People might call what I describe depression, but I vigorously object. I was not numb or completely lost. I felt so much in that year-long night, so cold, so alone, momentary oases of relief (glimpses of the full moon on cold walks home, observing ducks swim across the lake–nature herself was always perfectly consoling). It was dynamic, except for the fact that it was pitch black in terms of personal direction.
As of late, I’ve surrounded myself with images of the dancing Nataraja–Shiva dancing within a wheel, holding objects that symbolize the very nature of dark nights–everything comes and goes. Shiva dances upon the representative of ignorance, who thinks things always stay the same … yet the fire in Shiva’s hand is naturally destructive, the hourglass naturally moves time to new beginnings and the calming palm forward assures us that everything is going to be alright. Oh what nights, and the dawns that end them, the longer, day-lit gaps between them, and the sure return of blind patches of one day at a time.
What I’m learning from these cycles is that even in the nights, there are stars. The daytimes, the good times, they are kind of overrated … and this idea tends to throw people headlong into feeling like they shouldn’t experience mystery or chaos or confusion. This seems to me to be a cornerstone of the antidepressant drug industry, the propaganda that we are all to be happy all of the time. On the contrary, we are all to be present all of the time as much as we can be and in that presence admit exactly what is happening through us. We can even be grateful for our own confusion, knowing that it counterposes clarity, that it is part of a rich life.
Being a bat as of late, I’ve grown to understand the pleasantries of silence, open space, not seeing but feeling–specifically feelings I’ve avoided or distracted myself from for too long. And when daylight dawns, I guess I’ll hang upside down and sleep again. As my good friend and Shaman Axel quotes: life is but a dream.
I used to want to be a person who is consistently happy. And in surrendering this expectation of myself, I see that in some ways, I am. I am the oldest sibling after all, so I have to save (happy) face. Even when I’m going through a personal hell, I am an optimist and can feel for others and see the big picture and see the need to get into their story, to take breaks from my process and sit still with others. Indeed, there’s a gradient to my life’s experience that I’m finally admitting as my lot. A complexity to me that allows me to understand anyone, anywhere, in any state of mind. It’s a worthy trade, these nights and days of life for the ability to embrace humanity in its range of forms, to till the rich soil of shared experience with friends.
All of this was inspired by a listen to one of my favorite remixes of a Coldplay song called Talk (Junkie XL remix). The layers of this music gradually pull me down deeper and deeper into a sensation I really crave once in a while–it’s a place that makes me feel lost, confused and desolate and yet strangely satisfied that it can’t get any moreso, and none of it is necessarily bad! Indeed, it’s comforting to remember that winter descends on the bed of daisies, and yet yields to spring and their return. And that fighting with the seasons is worse than their changing. We have to admit the season and dress appropriately, sometimes huddling by a tiny fire of our own determination to stay warm, otherwise we are slaves to it.
This journey is not a two-dimensional float through space, especially for people who live dynamic, entrepreneurial lives (i.e. expats). It’s a battery of experiences that get into our DNA and reduce us down to the beating of our very hearts. It’s important to be brave and sober in the face of any combination of emotional states. The mind, while it can be tamed through meditation and other techniques, must sometimes yield to the human being and the process itself. In fact, paradoxically, the more consistently I meditate, the more stuff comes up to challenge the new levels of awareness I am experiencing. Nobody gets off this ride. Nobody. This is why we need to talk to each other, share information with each other, stay connected. This is why the depths and heights of this vibration are so breathtaking:
Sometimes I don’t feel like the cosmos is picking up the phone. But I keep forgetting that there’s a sacred delay, a gap in time where I’m asked to reaffirm what I want to say … let it ring, let clarity set in, ask, let the answer come through …